A recent Dead Space panel came with a revelation: protagonist Isaac Clarke, who was speechless in the original game, would now be voice acted for the remake. It’s a relatively small change in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a point of contention for many fans. A voice protagonist is a tricky tool to use in horror, and some games use a little too much of it.
Sometimes it works out OK, like Leon S. Kennedy in Resident Evil 4, who is fondly remembered for his great zingers like “Your right hand comes off?” But in The Medium, a recent horror title from Bloober Team, I could hardly hear myself think over protagonist Marianne’s musings. She kept leading me places while processing it aloud in real time, like someone explaining their own jokes. It just killed the momentum.
This is why I loved Nightslink, a very small indie horror game that released at the end of August. The game is a bite-sized horror experience with no save function, and it only asks for around half an hour of your time. It has echoes of P.T., without just ripping the formula. It has a similar sense of unresolved dread and cyclical progression. I’m delivering cassette tapes to clients in my role as a Nightslink, a courier for that specific task. And that’s where the beauty of Nightslink emerges from: it asks a series of questions, and lets your brain chew on what the answer is. There is no definitive answer, and that’s the point. This sense of restraint makes the horror game much more of a gut-punch.
The game is short, but it’s also free of any chaff. There are no jump scares, no unnecessary protagonist voice-overs, no letters full of exposition. Developer Noiseminded has cleverly cut out the unnecessary nonsense that plagues many modern horror games. There is nothing that bugs me more than finding a note written by a scientist where he explains all of his crimes, then goes “Oh no! They’re at the door! They found me! Oh nooooo!” or when a protagonist picks up a photo and goes “Huh… this must be the woman who lived here. She looks so innocent…”
I don’t need this! I have eyes and ears and a brain! Let me draw my own conclusions! Nightslink is sleek, streamlined, and stuffed to the brim with nightmare fuel. I found it to be delightful — well, as delightful as watching the slow decay of my customers into gibbering, panicked shells of themselves can be. Let’s just say my time delivering cassette tapes to initially wary Nightslink clients was memorable.
The game takes graphical inspiration from the original PlayStation, which makes it part of a retro wave, and it works well for Nightslink’s short, grim trip as a courier. Everything is low poly and kind of ugly. The audio design also does work to make the player feel uneasy and off-balance. When I speak to my clients, there’s only a hint of the original voice under layers of distortion. My early rounds are backed by the sounds of buzzing fluorescent lights and ambient life, like someone’s music or a crying baby. Then, I head back to my place and record more cassettes for the clients’ enjoyment. It’s a dull, mechanical task - load a tape, record, eject, load a tape, record, eject. What’s on the cassettes? I don’t know, and that’s the point.
With Nightslink, the danger is insidious and mysterious, which makes it scarier. Maybe it’s coming from me, as I do my rounds. Maybe there’s something else going on. There’s no root cause found in the third act, like a laboratory that housed the experiment, or the lair of an evil cult. Maybe it’s the main character’s childhood trauma, or a sad ghost.
After my first run, I went through another time and realized that the residents have more to say after you drop off the tape if you’re patient enough to keep knocking. There’s enough to be intriguing, but never enough to be overwhelming. I can have a little cosmic dread, as a treat.
Nightslink is a bite-sized experience, but it has successfully used its short run time to lodge itself into the back of my brain.
Nightslink was released on August 24 on Steam and itch.io. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.